A group of volunteers pray for and with a man known to them only as Willie, center, in downtown Springfield. The volunteers are a coalition of Christians who make a weekly Monday night search for homeless in need of assistance, during the winter.
FROM THE SPRINGFIELD REPUBICAN, 2/7/09, By PATRICK JOHNSON
SPRINGFIELD -Drunk and weaving from side to side, the man staggered along Worthington Street just before midnight. The temperature was 27 degrees.
Narrowly missing being hit by a passing car, he stumbled and fell face-first into a snowbank. Before he could get to his feet, four men had set upon him.
The man stiffened to defend himself from an attack, but the four meant no harm.
Two steadied him to his feet, another tried to put gloves on his raw, exposed hands, and a fourth asked if he needed a ride to a shelter or anywhere else.
“Are you serious?” the man exclaimed in apparent disbelief. “This isn’t happening!”
The Rev. Gregory S. Dyson eased the man – who said his name was “Marco” – into a warm van that would take him to his friend’s house, where he had been temporarily staying on the sofa.
Before closing the door, Dyson asked “Marco” to remember the faces of the people who helped him.
“Tomorrow, you can tell the story,” he said. “You were out walking, and people stopped you and did the right thing.”
Dyson is the interim pastor at the Church of the Acres in the city’s Sixteen Acres neighborhood. He is also part of a group that is trying to do the right thing by the homeless in Springfield.
Dyson, the Rev. James G. Munroe of Christ Church Cathedral, and the Rev. Jack Desroches of Milestone Ministries have cobbled together a dedicated corps of volunteers who take to the streets weekly to help the homeless.
The group has no name, no formal structure, and no means of funding. But each Monday night from Columbus Day to Mother’s Day, between 20 and 70 volunteers go looking for the homeless, often in places only the homeless know.
The Samaritans search alleys, trash bins, and doorways. They check parts of the bicycle path near the Connecticut River, and they venture under highway overpasses and railroad trestles.
They also check the front steps and nooks and crannies around City Hall, Old First Church, and Symphony Hall, where a homeless man was found dead four years ago on a bitter January morning.
The Monday night ministry, which, for lack of a better name, is what its members call themselves, aims to help anyone on the street get off the street, said Dyson.
Volunteers give out blankets, mittens, food, and anything else to help those in need. The “anything else” includes just talking with the homeless people they encounter, and, if they are willing, inviting them to pray with the group.
They provide rides to shelters, including the Worthington House shelter at 769 Worthington St. On nights when it has been especially cold and those they help are unwilling to go to a shelter, they have been known to pony up the money for a motel room.
“That’s what we do,” Dyson said. “We go out, we love them, and we care for them.”
They sometimes meet people who, under no circumstances, will go inside – to a shelter or anywhere else. In those cases, the Samaritans hand out extra blankets and pray some more.
Dyson and others use the expression that they are acting as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. They see themselves taking His biblical teachings and applying them to the world.
“That’s what we do,” Dyson said. “We go out, we love them, and we care for them.”
On any given Monday, the ministry includes the religious and the barely religious, the young and the old, business leaders, city officials, college students, and even former homeless people.
They gather at 9:30 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on West Columbus Avenue. Anyone willing is welcome to go along.
Daniel R. Pique, of Springfield, celebrated his 22nd birthday handing out gifts to strangers. A born-again Christian, he said that aiding the homeless helped him to get back on track with his faith, and made up for the “bad choices” that had led him astray.
“It’s about changing lives and getting help to people,” said Pique.
On this particular night, a contingent of students from Smith College in Northampton and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst joined the effort.
Crystal A. Fryer, a Smith senior from Kentucky, said she was taught, as part of her Christian faith, that every person has value. That, she said, includes those whom society considers “the lowest of the low and not worth our respect anymore.”
Tending to the homeless in Springfield is not too far removed from biblical accounts of Jesus tending to lepers, said Fryer.
Any amount of time working with the homeless reveals how complicated the issue of homelessness is, according to Dyson.
The city has two primary shelters that are operated by the Friends of the Homeless. The women’s shelter at 501 Worthington St. can accommodate 26 women, while the larger, men’s shelter at 769 Worthington St. accommodates 107.
In the winter months, the Friends of the Homeless also operates an overflow shelter for as many as 30 men at the former St. Francis of Assisi Chapel on Bridge Street.
The three shelters have been averaging 130 a night this winter, and have reached as high as 160, said executive director William J. Miller. Each winter, the shelters provide beds for about 1,300 people, he said.
Members of the Monday night ministry speak of meeting people on the streets who have advanced college degrees and once had successful careers and stable marriages before succumbing to drugs, mental illness, or other personal problems.
Desroches said the most important thing the group does is to show people on the street that someone cares.
“Maybe they need gloves, but what they really need is you,” he said. “They need to know that there is hope out there.”
On this night, the temperature dropped from 32 to a crisp 27 degrees between 9:30 and midnight. It was cold, but not as bad as the arctic conditions just a few days earlier.
Over the course of three hours, teams checking through eight areas of the city found only two people to help.
One was “Marco,” the man on Worthington Street, and then there was “Willie,” located in the South End around 10:30 p.m. He said he was not homeless and that he had a place to stay until the end of the month.
But he did accept some blankets and sandwiches, and allowed the group to form a prayer circle around him before heading off toward West Columbus Avenue and the Hall of Fame.
In their search around town, the Samaritans have found evidence – sleeping bags and makeshift campsites in the usual places – but no people living on the streets, according to Desroches.
“I’m still thinking about what it means,” he said.
But any night when there are not many people out on the street is a good night, he said.
No night is typical, Dyson said. Sometimes, they are out until 3 a.m., and on some nights, like this one, they call it quits just after midnight.
Standing on the steps of Symphony Hall, behind one of the massive pillars, Munroe pointed to the spot where four years earlier Larry Dunham froze to death.
Dunham, a 47-year-old man who had been homeless for some time, camped out on the steps during a freezing cold January night. He resisted offers to be taken to a shelter, and was found dead the next morning.
Since his death, city churches have taken up the issue of homelessness as a way of preventing similar tragedies, Munroe said.
“The Lord took that tragic death and used it for the seeds of ministry,” he said.
Since then, he said, a lot of people have worked to help keep tragedy from striking again.
Under his knit cap, Munroe has a inch-long scar on the top of his head. Two weeks earlier, while looking for homeless people camping along the river, he cracked his head on a low-hanging bridge beam along the bicycle path.
Another of the weekly volunteers, Richard Poulin. of Springfield, credits the Monday night ministry with saving his life.
A little over a year ago, Poulin said, he was drunk, homeless, and living alone on the streets of Springfield. He was resigned to dying the same way.
On a bitter cold November night, as he sat on some stone steps downtown, a group of people he did not know approached, Poulin recalled.
They talked with him, prayed with him, and, when he said he could use some warm boots, found him a pair.
It was the boots, he said, along with repeated contact with the people who supplied them which helped Poulin take the first steps to get back on track. He has since gone to rehabilitation, and is now back at home with his wife.
“By the grace of God and all these people, I’ve been sober since,” he said.
Desroches said that Poulin always talks about the boots, but another gift he received that night was more important.
“We gave him hope,” he said.
See video here: http://videos.masslive.com/republican/2009/01/homeless.html